The first in an occasional series on promising young athletes to keep an eye on in the future, whether on or off the track.
Even before she could walk, Catie Ellingson was going to be a runner; it was in her blood. Her father, Keith, was a sub-2:30 marathoner and NCAA cross-country and track coach for 20 years, and her mother, Kristi, was an avid recreational runner.
Photo: Catie Ellingson, in yellow, by Kenn Krpan
After a solid-but-not-spectacular high school career (she was fifth in the state championships 800 meters as a senior), Ellingson elected to remain in her hometown of Indianola, Iowa—a 15,000-resident suburb of Des Moines—and attend Simpson College, a school best known in track circles for producing 2000 Olympic decathlete Kip Janvrin. Ellingson immediately made an impact for the Storm, winning two conference titles and making NCAA indoor All-American as a freshman in 2008.
On May 25 of that year, the weekend of the NCAA Division III outdoor championships, the family received the devastating news that Kristi Ellingson had developed stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Throughout her mother’s fight with cancer, Ellingson continued to compete, winning more conference titles and earning two more All-America certificates, including the NCAA 1500-meter runner-up spot in 2010. During that time, her mom didn’t miss a race. But that summer was an emotional one.
“After nationals in 2010, in the span of a few months, all these things happened: I got into a bad car accident, my older sister got divorced, and my mom started to get really sick,” Ellingson explained. That autumn, two days before the conference cross-country meet of Ellingson’s senior season, her mother passed away. Four weeks later, Ellingson earned All-America honor in cross-country, the first by a Simpson athlete in two decades.
Shortly after that race Ellingson started feeling the initial hints of an injury that would disrupt her running for more than a year. It bothered her throughout the 2011 indoor season, and by the time she earned another All-America recognition at the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships, she could barely walk off the track. Something had to be done.
“They call it a ‘pump bump,’” Ellingson said recently of the nagging injury, rolling her eyes at the moniker, “because most people get it from wearing high heels too much. But I guess it can be caused by the rubbing from track spikes, too.” Despite its cute nickname, “pump bump” is also known as Haglund’s Deformity and it can cause serious heel problems if left untreated. In Ellingson’s case, it forced her to take five months off from running—what should have been her entire senior year outdoor season and much of the summer—while doctors struggled to diagnose the problem.
One doctor suggested Platelet-rich Plasma (PRP) therapy, where the subject’s own blood is separated into platelet-rich and platelet-poor plasma via centrifuge. The platelet-rich plasma is then injected into the injured area, encouraging healing. It’s a relatively new treatment modality, and Ellingson was one of the first to receive it at the nearby Des Moines Orthopaedic Surgeons clinic.
“They had to bring someone in who knew how to do it,” she laughed.
After three treatments the pain was nearly gone, and Ellingson was able to slowly transition from running in the pool to running on solid ground. She still cross-trains a few days each week instead of running, and the Simpson College athletic trainer treats her daily with electrical stimulation and ultrasound therapy. Her abbreviated training schedule has meant that nearly all of her workouts are done alone, without the benefit of her teammates.
Fingers crossed, the pain is gone, and on March 31, Ellingson competed in her first outdoor meet in nearly two years, handily winning her 1500-meter race over Coe College’s Keelie Finnel, the reigning Iowa Conference champion, and several Division I athletes. She faced arguably the best field of her life at the Mt. SAC Relays near Los Angeles on April 19, and despite losing a step at the onset of her 1500-meter race when the athlete next to her appeared to false start, Ellingson showed impressive racing chops over the final two laps, moving from last to second, besting athletes from much larger schools far better known for their track programs. Her 4:27.91 currently stands as the third-fastest time of the year in NCAA Division III, and narrowly misses her own school record, set in that NCAA runner-up finish nearly two years ago. She has never run that fast, this early.
This weekend, Ellingson will celebrate her 23rd birthday at the venerable Drake Relays—a meet she’s been attending since she was in diapers—where she’ll compete as part of Simpson’s sprint medley relay team. In less than three weeks, she’ll try to recapture the Iowa Conference 1500-meter title she last won two years ago, and two weeks after that she’ll be back in California for her final go at the NCAA Championships.
For her part, Ellingston remains cagey about what her goals are for the rest of the season. “I just want to run fast,” she said, but the twinkle in her eye revealed that she has more specific goals in mind. It’s not lost on her that any improvement upon her NCAA runner-up finish from two years ago would mean a national title, the first for any Simpson track athlete since 1993. It won’t be easy. The top three finishers from last year’s NCAA 1500 are all returning, but Ellingson has shown she’s as good as anybody when it comes to facing challenges.
“I feel so lucky just to be able to run,” she said the day after her Mt. SAC race. “During the injury, I wasn’t sure if I could ever run again. And when my mom was really sick and I didn’t want to leave her side to go running, she would tell me, ‘You have to go running, because that’s what I would do if I could.’ I don’t ever take running for granted, because I know what it’s like when someone wants to run, but can’t. You don’t realize how important something is until you can’t do it anymore.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg